AUSTIN (Nexstar) – As lawmakers prepare to return to the Texas Capitol this month, many rural communities are hoping the legislature will make significant investments in their mental health resources.
Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner handles mental health cases not only in her county seat in Amarillo, but in more than two dozen rural counties around the Texas Panhandle. Although Tanner said she has handled more than 5,000 cases in her tenure, the closest mental health hospital to her constituents is more than 200 miles away.
“I can tell you some sad, sad stories,” she said. “I don’t want people to tell me, ‘well, he killed himself.’ This is what we have to stop.”
She said only one in five people in need of mental health care in the cases she has treated made it to a state hospital. Often when they do, Tanner added, they are released without proper care and end up back in the system.
“There is never a bed available,” she said. “We’re stuck with the same people.”
Gov. Dan Patrick estimated at a press conference last month that of the roughly 2,500 mental health beds in Texas, at least 1,000 are empty due to a lack of nursing staff. He named rural mental health access as one of his top priorities for the 88th legislative session.
“As I’ve traveled around the state, I’ve seen the need,” Patrick said. “We don’t have a mental health facility in the Panhandle, so I’m proposing that we build one. This is something we need to do for our communities.”
He estimated that his plan to add a new state hospital in Amarillo and hundreds of beds at existing sites will cost $2.2 billion. He was specific in advocating for more beds in El Paso, 300 more in Wichita Falls and Terrell, and 140 more in the Rio Grande Valley.
Patrick also proposed new investments in tuition coverage and salary increases for nurses to reduce staff shortages.
In Kingsville, Dr. Steve Bain with the new Institute for Rural Mental Health Initiatives said the priority should be on graduate school programs that train new mental health professionals and stimulate placement in rural communities. The Texas A&M Board of Regents approved the institute this November as a first-of-its-kind center for rural mental health research and education.
“Our state ranks very low in providing mental health resources, especially to remote populations,” Bain said. “We need to be constantly connected to these communities and that will take time and organization through our institute. Research and research funding will be needed. And we’re going to have to place our graduate students who need their internships and internships in these rural communities.”
In Texas House testimony, Bain told lawmakers that one in five Texas children has a mental health disorder. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, the Texas Poison Control Network saw a 50% increase in calls about suspected suicide among teenage girls.
“We are at an unprecedented time in our state’s history where great leaders like you can make a difference for children, their families and those who are committed to the holistic success of our young Texans,” he testified. “With your support, we can and must expand rural mental health programs.”
Tanner said he is optimistic that this session will bring tangible improvements.
“Lt. Gov. Patrick said there’s money in the budget,” she said, adding that the Senate Finance Committee was “very receptive” to her proposal for an Amarillo mental health hospital. The Amarillo Area Foundation has already donated seven acres to the facility — paired with local medical school students at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and she said it only makes sense.
“I am praying that it will happen. It will be my greatest undertaking and my greatest success as a judge to do this before I leave here,” she said.